Freedom & Responsibility

blogs musings

Just a few days ago I turned 30. I don’t think I was expecting the wave of emotions that came over me when it happened. But for some reason, no matter how much I’d mentally prepared myself, or how braced for this new decade I thought I was, reaching this milestone has shaken some things loose in me.

I can’t lie, I’ve been depressed these last few days. I didn’t really do anything at all on the actual day. This weekend, (it’s Sunday as I write this) I’ll go over to my cousin’s house for a nice family dinner which I’m looking forward to. But other than that, there was nothing to mark this day or week or weekend as different from any other, which I suppose it isn’t. My friends are wonderful, but we all live in different places. Gone are the days when we could see each other daily or even every weekend. Now, my closest friendships consist of a phone call once a week, if that. And the thing that really got under my skin was the knowledge that it’s only going to get harder from here. To not be lonely.

A friend told me “life starts at 30.” The funny thing is, I can clearly remember a time when I believed that by the time one reached 30, they had more or less become the person they were destined to be. Now, for my own sake, I can only hope to chalk that one up to youthful ignorance. But I guess there is an element of truth, in that the first 30 years are so formative, and so full of potential, so full of major decisions, that by the time you hit 30 one thing you can say for sure is your life has a direction. The destination may be a long way off, but you have built up momentum one way or the other. Even if the first 3 decades were totally squandered, that is a direction. It’s enough time to be well established in almost any profession, from medicine to law to law-enforcement to engineering, to say nothing of the more glamorous paths of art, music, sports and entertainment. (I’ve already made peace with the fact that most celebrities are now younger than me.) Some people have businesses, careers, and lots have families. Some people have none of those things. Some people are millionaires, already jaded from disappointment at how little happiness money brought them, with the rest of their life to figure out what will. Some people work at unglamorous, low-paying jobs without much room for growth. Some people don’t even have jobs.

I guess what I’m saying is, 30 years is enough time to do almost anything and end up almost anywhere. And much like how it’s easiest to learn languages when you’re young, there are things that, if not gotten out of the way already, will be more difficult (but not impossible) to do as you get older. It’s easiest to pivot to a new career, or go back to school, or move to a new city in your 20’s. It’s easier to swing and miss and still feel like you have plenty of swings left. So while I still have the nerve to consider myself young, I can and will no longer consider myself a “youth”. A 29 year old is an old youth. A 30 year old is a young adult. I never realized how comforting the safety net of youth really was. Now that it’s completely evaporated, somehow the stakes of everything feel higher.

And yet, in a sense I wouldn’t want to do any of it over. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made tons of mistakes already. I have a list of memories that still make me cringe a mile and a half long. I also have a list of memories that make me smile. And the thing that I never really understood until now was that youth always seemed like the best time in life, not only because of the fast metabolism and sex appeal, or the manageable hangovers, but because youth goes hand in hand with a lack of responsibility. Whenever we talk about a person who tragically, for whatever reason, “had to grow up too fast” or “never got a chance to be a kid” it always means that person was saddled with way more responsibility way earlier than seemed fair. And freedom from responsibility always seemed like, well, freedom. If you don’t have kids or a mortgage, then you are technically free to book the next flight to Spain. Or take a road trip and see the grand canyon. Or continue to live in mom’s basement. But is that really freedom, or is it just potential? We spend our youths with the most potential we’ll ever have, trying to figure out who we are, what we want, and how we fit into this world. Every choice we make comes with an opportunity cost, and for every door we step through, God only knows how many have to close. We dread the day when there are more closed doors than open ones. We think that means the death of freedom.

I’m no longer convinced that it’s freedom that we really want, even in youth. I think less these days about freedom, and more about meaning. It’s much, much more fulfilling, I think, to have a sense that your days are meaningful than it is to feel like your options are unlimited. And the beautiful, life-affirming secret is this:

It may be easy to find “freedom” (whatever that means) without responsibility. But it is utterly impossible to find meaning without responsibility.

There is no separating the two. Spending a lifetime trying to keep as many doors open as possible only means you never actually know what it’s like to take a chance and step through one. And that is what will lead to regret. Relaxing all the time is fun. Kind of. But sensing progress through effort on one thing is exhilarating. Ease does not mean happiness. Challenge does not mean suffering. Novelty is sexy. Commitment is sexier.

So yes, I felt depressed as I woke up this morning. I felt lonely. I felt regret for lots of choices I made or didn’t make in my “youth.” I also didn’t see a clear route to anything changing or becoming less lonely, as if companionship is something that falls out of the sky. Since it’s Sunday, and I have few responsibilities (yeah, yeah, I know. Here I am, single with no kids preaching responsibility) I really contemplated lying in bed and listening to audiobooks until dinner. But then Patch started crying; he needed to go on a walk. So we got up and did that. Then I decided that I could muster a short workout. After the first set, I was already thinking of things that I was grateful for. Then I cleaned the kitchen and started a load of laundry. I also signed up for a meetup next week; I’m going to go get beers with a bunch of strangers and we’re going to practice our Spanish. I remembered I have a friend from jiu jitsu who I could hit up to get coffee, and work on building more local friendships. I have more errands and chores to get done today, and not much time to waste. And by now, as I write this, I can genuinely say I feel good about everything. It’s not because I did some mental gymnastics and convinced myself my youth isn’t over. It is, and I accept that. It’s because I realized that my happiness isn’t dependent on my freedom. My happiness, my sense of peace, and who I am, is my own responsibility.

And now I feel like life is beginning.